The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Hot Pink Protest: Bulgarian Monument Repainted as ‘Artistic Apology’ for 1968 Czechoslovakian Invasion.

This week marked the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’, the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Overnight on 20-21 August 1968 a combined force of up to 200,000 Soviet, Bulgarian, East German, Hungarian and Polish troops entered and occupied Czechoslovakia to crush the political liberalisation sparked by communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s reformist ‘Prague Spring’ and implement a period of ‘normalisation’. You can read more about the failure of the Prague Spring and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion in a previous blog post here.

Of course, the 45th anniversary of the invasion was commemorated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Prague, several top Czech officials (including current Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok, lower house speaker Miroslava Němcová and Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček) marked the occasion in a ceremony that took place outside the Czech Radio building that had formed one of the centres of resistance in 1968.

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an 'artistic apology' for Bulgaria's role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via novinite.com: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153005

A prominent monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia was anonymously painted pink earlier this week as an ‘artistic apology’ for Bulgaria’s role in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Photo Credit: Assen Genov, Facebook, via novinite.com: http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153005

However, this year domestic remembrance was overshadowed by developments in Bulgaria, where anonymous artists spray painted a prominent monument to the Soviet Army pink with the accompanying slogan ‘Bulgaria Aplogises’ (written in both Czech and Bulgarian) indicating remorse for Bulgarian involvement in the invasion. Back in 1968 Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was the leading advocate of hard-line intervention to quell Dubcek’s reforms, and critics have since pointed out that Bulgaria was the first Warsaw Pact country to insist on military intervention in 1968 and the last communist-bloc country to formally apologise for their involvement, in 1990. This week, a Bulgarian blogger interviewed one of the anonymous artists, who confirmed that choosing pink paint was a deliberate nod to Czech artist David Černý, who famously painted a Soviet tank dedicated to the memory of the 1945 liberation of Prague pink in 1991, an act which sparked controversy and ultimately led to the tank’s removal to a military museum.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of 'Operation Danube' - the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Close-up of the Bulgarian memorial, which was painted to correspond with the 45th anniversary of ‘Operation Danube’ – the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Photo Credit: ArtDaily.Org http://artdaily.com/news/64528/Pink-makeover-for-Warsaw-Pact-invasion-of-Czechoslovakia-monument-in-Bulgaria-#.UheT6X_3PN6

Photos of the freshly re-painted monument quickly spread around the world via social networking sites and the story was also picked up by several international media organisations. The Bulgarian authorities moved quickly to try to ensure damage limitation: the monument was cleaned the following night (an operation allegedly conducted by volunteers from the ‘Forum Bulgaria-Russia’), while the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia swiftly announced the launch of pre-trial proceedings against the (still unknown) perpetrators on charges of ‘hooliganism’ which could result in a sentence of up to two years in jail if pursued, although this seems unlikely unless they are identified. However, Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman from the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the Russian government intend to formally request that the Bulgarian authorities take action to punish those responsible and prevent the recurrence of any similar incidents in future. His statement demanded ‘the adoption of effective measures to prevent the mockery of the memory of the Soviet soldiers who died for the liberation of Europe from Nazism and Bulgaria, to identify and punish those responsible’.

This was not the first time that the Soviet Army monument in Sofia has been the subject of a controversial makeover. It has been subject to repeated graffiti, most famously in June 2011 when the statues were  re-painted to resemble a collection of well-known Western pop culture heroes including Superman, The Joker, Captain America and Ronald McDonald, the flag held by the soldiers was painted with the US stars and stripes and an accompanying

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/06/graffiti-artist-turns-bulgarian-war-memorial-into-superhero-monument/

The same monument was famously subjected to a superhero themed makeover in June 2011. Photo Credit: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/06/graffiti-artist-turns-bulgarian-war-memorial-into-superhero-monument/

slogan proclaimed that the makeover was ‘In Step With The Times’. I also wrote about this in an old blog post here. The Soviet monument has long divided opinion in Bulgaria – many view the statue as a symbol of communist repression, and there have been several calls for it to be destroyed, or at least moved from its current (prominent) location in central Sofia to the city’s museum of communism which opened in 2011. But these proposals are opposed by others who argue that the statue represents Bulgaria’s liberation from fascism in WWII and charge those who want the statue removed with ‘historical revisionism’. Of course, this debate is not just taking place within Bulgaria; over twenty years after the collapse of communism, the status of Soviet WWII memorials as symbols of liberation or oppression are still frequently contested throughout the former communist bloc. For more on this topic see my previous blog post here.

The latest ‘attack’ on the Soviet memorial in Sofia must also be understood in the context of growing domestic unrest in Bulgaria, where large-scale protests against the current government (which is dominated by the former communist party) have been occurring on a daily basis since June. Interestingly, photos of the on-going anti-government protests in Sofia following the controversial repainting of the memorial earlier this week show demonstrators brandishing a cardboard cut-out of Černý’s ‘pink tank’.

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny's 'pink tank'. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via novinite.com http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153077

Anti-government protestors in Bulgaria this week holding a cardboard cut-out of David Cerny’s ‘pink tank’. Phto Credit: photo by journalist Nayo Titzin, Facebook via novinite.com http://www.novinite.com/view_news.php?id=153077

However, the Czechs have also experienced a summer of political turmoil, triggered by the collapse of Petr Necas’s government following a corruption scandal in June. Czech MPs recently passed a vote of no-confidence, dissolving parliament and triggering an early election this autumn that threatens to return the communist party to power. Some Czech officials used the 45th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion earlier this week, to warn against the return of the communists to political power, with Prague Mayor Tomáš Hudeček commenting that:

 “This day is important for all of us because many people of my age and younger don’t know what the communist era was like. They don’t remember the shortages of oranges and bananas but also more important issues – the lack of freedom, the lack of responsibility for one’s actions, and so on. I believe that marking this anniversary will help us remember all these things of the past … Many things have not changed since the fall of communism in 1989. Changing people’s way of thinking is so much more difficult than changing the way the streets and cities look, for example”.

August 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Czech President ‘Steals’ Pen!

Footage appearing to show Czech President Vaclav Klaus slyly pocketing a ceremonial pen during a meeting with his Chilean counterpart Sebastián Piñera has become a global internet sensation, receiving over 1.5 million hits on YouTube. Filmed during a recent news conference to announce a new trade agreement, the video clip shows Klaus removing the pen – which was encrusted with semi-precious Chilean lapis lazuili stones –  from its case and clearly admiring it before drawing it under the table and seemingly attempting to pocket it without anyone noticing!

‘Pengate’


The online furore created by the footage led to statements from both Presidential offices, claiming that Klaus hadn’t behaved inappropriately. Klaus responded by claiming that he ‘takes stuff all the time’ with previous hauls including ‘a pen from a Nato summit in October and a notepad from the Latvian parliament’. Radim Ochvat, Klaus’s spokesman, stressed that the President was entitled to take the pen, which was ‘a pen with a logo of the state or office, which presidents and members of their delegation receive during state visits’, adding that ‘We at the Prague Castle always give such a pen to delegations, along with a notepad’. This was followed by a statement from Piñera’s office, confirming that ‘guests of the President were free to take the ceremonial pens as gifts’. However official ‘clarification’ hasn’t prevented a number of satirical responses to the ‘theft’ such as this cartoon by Sergei Velkin at RIA Novosti and the establishment of a Czech facebook group backing a campaign for people to send pens to Klaus at Prague Castle as ‘their president obviously has nothing to write with’!

Aceeptance of a legitimate gift? Or a hangover from the communist period when petty pilfering was viewed as the norm? Watch the footage below to decide for yourself!

April 14, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Updates on Cerny and Croatia

Those of you who have previously been following my blog may be interested to know that two of the topics I recently covered here have been subject to further developments in the last couple of days.

David Cerny and ‘Entropa’

On 27 January I wrote about Czech Artist David Cerny’s contraversial artwork ‘Entropa’ which caused a furore when it was unveiled at the EU Headquarters earlier this year ( @ https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/czech-artist-courts-controversy/ ). Yesterday Cerny created further controversy by announcing he now planned to remove the artwork on 10th May – 7 weeks earlier than planned – as a mark of protest against the fall of the Czech government of Mirek Topolanek after a vote of no-confidence in March, and it’s replacement next month by a temporary cabinet who Cerny dismissed as ‘an autopilot cabinet …  a government of former communists’. Entropa will be donated to a Prague Gallery. At least the Bulgarians should be happy!

Croatia’s EU Negotiations

Shortly afterwards, on February I wrote about the threat posed to Croatia’s bid for EU membership by an ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Slovenia (for more details see ‘Croatian EU Membership Under Threat’ @ https://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2009/02/23/croatian-eu-membership-under-threat/ ). And yesterday (23rd April) the EU did indeed announce the cancellation of the next round of talks with Croatia, due to the ongoing dispute with Slovenia over the Bay of Piran, stating that any resumption of talks with Croatia would be ‘subject to positive developments’ in Croatian-Slovenian negotiations over this issue. This move is a potential concern development, not just for Croatia but also for other aspiring EU candidates in the Balkan Region, where numerous border disputes that emerged after the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation remain unresolved.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

International Organised Crime in the Czech Republic.

A short article I wrote at the close of 2008 about organised crime in the Czech Republic has just been published in Jane’s Intelligence Digest (‘Foreign crime infiltrates Czech Republic’, 06/02/2009   http://jid.janes.com/public/jid/index.shtml).

While I obviously can’t reproduce the full article here, I will provide a quick general overview of this topic, highlighting  some of the key points:

  • Concerns were raised about continued high-levels of non-indigenous organised crime in the Czech Republic last year. A report published by UOOZ (the Czech unit for combating organised crime) in July 2008 claimed that organised crime was dominated by groups originating from the former Soviet Union, Italy, the Balkans and a range of Asian and Middle Eastern networks, who were engaged in a variety of  criminal activities on an incresingly large scale. The 2008 annual report by BIS (the Czech civillian counter intelligence unit) also expressed concern about foreign crime groups infiltrating both legal and illegal spheres of the Czech economy and establishing ties with lawyers, financiers, members of the state administration, police and the judiciary.
  • Concern over penetration by foreign criminal groups is not a recent development however. The earliest post-communist Czech intelligence and law enforcement reports, written in the early 1990s, strongly stressed the presence of high levels of non-indigenous organised crime within the country. In 1992 a report compiled by the Czech Ministry of Interior claimed that less than 20% of organised crime was committed by domestic criminals, and by the mid-1990s law enforcement reports estimated that around 50% of criminal organisations active in Czech Republic originated from elsewhere, with another 25% comprised of a mixture of foreign and domestic criminals.
  • Similar claims presenting organised crime primarily as a ‘foreign import’ are found in all of the East European countries in the early post-communist period. To a certain extent the level of influence of non-indigenous organised crime was exaggerated to downplay the development of domestic organised crime. However, the Czech Republic is an attractive prospect for many criminal gangs from outside its borders. It’s  geographical location is perfect for incorporation into European smuggling routes, initially bordering EU countries and (from May 2004) becoming a full EU member themselves, while the post-communist economic boom of the late 1990s created favourable conditions for investment and money laundering.
  • Criminal groups from the former Soviet Union quickly moved in to establish a strong presence in the Czech Republic in the 1990s, with groups linked to the Moscow-based Solntsevo organisation, St-Petersburg based Tambovskaya group and several organisations from Ukraine, Chechnya, Dagestan and Armenia known to be active on Czech territory. Russian-speaking crime groups have invested heavily in businesses and real estate in areas including Prague, Brno and Karlovy Vary.  Recent reports suggest that criminal groups from the former Soviet Union retain a position of dominance amongst non-indigenous gangs operating in the Czech Republic today, followed by groups from the Balkans and Italy.
  • The strong international influence on organised crime means that criminal networks in the Czech Republic today engage in a variety of activities on a transnational scale, including illegal immigration, people trafficking, arms trading and commodity smuggling activities. The country remains a favoured route for drug smuggling, particularly heroin from Asia and increasingly, cocaine from North Africa. Despite some growth in the domestic drug market in recent years, Interpol still estimate that around 70% of drugs smuggled into the Czech Republic are destined for further transport and sale in other EU countries. Many gangs have also moved into drug production, with a number of professionally equipped amphetamine manufacturing laboratories uncovered in recent years.
  • While the continued presence of foreign criminals is clear, the Czech underworld is not entirely dominated by outsiders. A number of ‘home-grown’ criminal gangs have faced trial in recent years, most famously the Berdych gang trial, which led to 19 gang members (all of whom were Czechs, including three former UOOZ members) being sentenced on a range of criminal charges in January 2006. Recent evidence indicates that domestic criminal groups are now taking greater responsibility for organising and conducting operations on Czech territory, while analysts admit that increased international collaboration means it is becoming more difficult to classify groups as ‘Czech’ or ‘foreign’.

February 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Czech Artist Courts Controversy.

Czech artist David Černý (recently dubbed the ‘enfant terrible’ of the Czech art world by the BBC’s Rob Cameron) has courted fresh controversy with his most recent exhibit entitled ‘Entropa’, a play on ‘Evropa’ (the Czech word for ‘Europe’) and ‘Entropy’ meaning ‘disorder’.  Installed in the EU Council headquarters in Brussels, and unveiled on 12 January to celebrate the Czech Republic’s assumption of the EU Presidency from 1st January 2009, it wasn’t long before the 16 metre square, seven tonne framework raised not only eyebrows, but also indignation and anger.

Why? While the Czech government thought they had spent $ 500,000 USD commissioning a collaborative effort between artists drawn from all 27 countries depicted in the piece to celebrate and promote modern Europe, the end product transpired to be the work of Černý and a couple of Czech compatriots, who chose to ‘celebrate’ Europe by drawing on a number of popular cliches and crude prejudices to represent EU member states. As a result, France was depicted as ‘Greve!’ (a country ‘on strike’), Italy as a giant football field, Romania as a Dracula theme park and the UK found itself excluded from the European ‘map’ altogether, in a clear reference to its perceived Euroscepticism:

Czech it out! Cerny's contraversial art installation 'Entropa'

In a statement released shortly after the true nature of Entropa  was revealed, Černý said the following:

“Grotesque exaggeration and mystification are signs of Czech culture and the creation of false identities is one of the strategies of current arts … The work thus parodies socially committed art that balances on the brink of would-be controversial attacks on national characters and an innocent decoration of official spaces.We knew that the truth will be uncovered. Still before we wanted to find out whether Europe is capable of laughing at itself”

Some EU countries however, have failed to see the funny side. Bulgaria (depicted as a Turkish squat toilet) certainly don’t appear to be laughing. After expressing ‘profound indignation’ about their unflattering depiction,  the Bulgarian Government formally requested the immediate removal of their ‘country’ from the piece, resulting in ‘Bulgaria’ being covered over with a black shroud and somberly concealed from view from 20th January:

The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

Toilet Humour? The Bulgarian Government demanded that the portion of the exhibit representing Bulgaria was covered over, after expressing outrage at their depiction as 'Europe's toilet'.

The Czechs aren’t laughing that much either.  Leading government  ministers claim to be outraged,  having been ‘misled’ about the nature of the piece and it’s origins. Czech President Vaclav Klaus initially pledged his support for the installation, but following the controversy generated after its unveiling, he moved quickly to distance himself from the scandal, claiming that Entropa was ‘neither funny nor good’ and offering a public apology to Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.

Elsewhere however, the response to the scandal has been more muted. While some EU diplomats half-heartedly called for the removal of the Entropa exhibition, the  official launch went ahead on 15 January, and two weeks on from the initial furore it remains on view in the EC headquarters (minus Bulgaria). No other country have filed an official protest about their image, despite some depictions having the potential to prove equally controversial and detrimental. Germany, for example, is illustrated as a series of autobahns described as ‘resembling a swastika’:

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

Controversial? Germany as depicted by David Cerny.

So why aren’t the German government also clamouring in outrage? After all, if we’re dealing in national stereotypes, the Germans are all too frequently accused of humourlessness. It is interesting that those most offended by Entropa are among the newest members of the ‘European club’. Most of the former East European states who have joined the EU in recent years saw their accession to membership as a real turning point, a ‘return to Europe’ after the decades of communist rule. Perhaps this is an indication that these countries are still afraid they aren’t being taken seriously as ‘Europeans’, still having to prove their worth, and not yet secure enough in their post-communist identity to be able to shrug off such negative stereotypes. Bulgaria, who only joined the EU in January 2007, are still smarting after the recent European Commission decision to suspend almost EUR 500 million of their EU funding in July 2008, due to their failure to combat organised crime and corruption in line with EU accession requirements, while the Czech Republic are obviously anxious to be seen to be taking their first stint in the EU Presidency seriously.

Whenever art and politics combine there will be controversy, and the Entropa exhibition also raised another issue: that of censorship and freedom of speech.  Alexandr Vonda, Czech Deputy Prime Minister, while publically apologising for any offence caused by the exhibition, also defended the piece by claiming that ‘art is freedom of expression’ and that this demonstrates that ‘twenty years after the iron curtain, there is no place for censorship in the EU’.

You can see a video clip of Cerny explaining the inspiration behing Entropa courtesy of the BBC website here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7829453.stm

And Wikipedia have a full listing of the images used to represent each of the 27 countries, and their symbolism here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropa


January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments